Monday, May 26, 2014


Major conflicts involving American warriors:

War                                                                                       Americans Killed
American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)                          25,000 (low estimate)
American Civil War (1861-1865)                                        625,000 (420 deaths per day)
War of 1812 (1812-1815)                                                     15,000
Mexican-American War  (1846-1848)                                  13,283
World War I  (1917-1918)                                                  116,516 (279 deaths per day)
World War II  (1941-1945)                                                  405,399 (297 deaths per day)
Korean War (1950-1953)                                                       36,516 (45 deaths per day)
Vietnam War (1961-1975)                                                     58, 209 (11 deaths per day)
War on Terror (2001-present) Iraq and Afghanistan               6,717

Total American warriors killed in all conflicts, major and minor
                                (1775-present, 49  total internal and external conflicts)    1,321,612
Total American warriors wounded                                                                       1,531,036
Total American warriors missing                                                                              38,159

And today we still enjoy privileged lives in a free country.


Monday, May 19, 2014

“I have a great idea.”
          On several occasions I’ve been approached by a well-meaning person with a verbal proposal (and once a written one sent by registered mail, preceded by an introductory e-mail) that goes something like this:
          “I’m a fan of your suspense novels.  For years I’ve had this great idea for a novel plot, and I’m going to trust you by revealing it for the first time.  I figure you can whip out the actual book in a month or so and then we’ll split the money for it.  What do you say?”
          What I do is stop the person right there, as graciously as possible.  (In the case of the registered-mail missive, I returned the package unopened, along with an appreciative and apologetic cover letter.)
          Because here’s what can happen:  The inspired reader explains a treasured secret plot idea.  The author politely declines.  A year or so later the same reader picks up a book by the same author, recognizes some elements of his or her plot idea, becomes incensed, and threatens to sue the author’s shorts off for stealing the idea.
          Aside from such well-meaning readers having no concept of how much work it actually takes to produce, say, a hundred-thousand-word novel of any quality (my first salable novel, GUNS, required eighteen months to research and write), there are, in fact, only a few basic plot structures (some have said as few as seven), and we see them over and over in endless variations.  Consider just how many romance plots there can be (the simplest being male and female meet, fall in love, are separated for some reason, but get back together in the end), or how many lone-hero plots there are, or how many kidnap plots, or treasure-quest plots.  There just are not all that many basic plots from which to choose.  And all the best ones are based, in turn, on one or some combination of only three basic conflicts. (See my earlier posting on conflict.)
          So, no matter what ingenious plot a reader thinks is unique, it is really only another variation of some existing plot line, and it’s inevitable the reader will recognize elements of her or his cherished idea in the published works of authors.
          Actually, it would be more accurate to say the inspired reader almost certainly, and probably unconsciously, stole his or her plot idea from one or some blend of the authors she or he has read.
          Maybe next time I get such a proposal I’ll sue the shorts off that reader.

          For the best analysis of plot structures I’ve found, see the book 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Tense situations

          Astronomers talk and write about cosmic stuff in the present tense: “The aging star RS Puppis pulsates with a period of 41.4 days, at its peak radiating as much light as 15,000 suns.”   “The Iris Nebula in the constellation Cepheus the King is intensely blue.”   “Polaris (actually not a single star but two close star buddies) lies nearest to the earth’s extended northward axis, so it does not appear to move as earth rotates, and thus serves us nicely as the North Star for navigating.”
         But the truth is, none of that is necessarily true any longer.  We can’t ever experience views of any object or happening outside earth’s atmosphere in the present tense.  Light travels at a strictly-enforced speed limit of 186,000 miles per second, so we see even our moon, the nearest celestial object, always as it was more than a second ago.  We can never see it as it is this instant.   It takes sunlight about eight minutes to reach us, meaning if the sun explodes this present second it will be eight minutes from now before we’ll see it happen and head out to the supermarket to stock up on bread and milk.  The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is over four light years away (24 trillion miles, or 24 thousand billion miles), so the light we see from it right now left there over four years ago.  Other stars and whole galaxies are thousands, millions, and billions of light years distant.  So some of those stars almost certainly are mere ghosts of their former selves; they may have burned out or exploded long ago, even before our earth was formed, and the light they beamed out while they were alive is only just reaching us now.  They sure appear to be still out there, though.  But anytime we look into the far sky, we’re experiencing the past tense on a grand scale.

          Barstool jokes also are often erroneously told in the present tense:  “Horse walks into a bar, takes a booth.  Sexy waitress comes over and says, ‘Aw, why the long face?’ ”
          And some authors of both fiction and nonfiction insist on writing in the present tense.  Probably because they think it lends an aura of immediacy to their work, or it just makes them stand out as different.
          But how do our teachers, preachers, newscasters, friends, and family members relate their tales to us?  Nearly always in the past tense, right?  For example: “Let me tell you what happened yesterday.  I was walking my  thirteen poodles along Hydrant Street when I met a therapist I haven’t seen in ten years, and . . .”  Or, “This is Candy Capdteeth reporting to you here on-scene for the Manglefacts News Network.  Residents of this idyllic island nation were stunned and devastated when their sacred volcano at the island’s heart erupted yesterday, spewing old offerings and . . . “
          The past tense is overwhelmingly familiar, and what’s familiar makes for easy, comfortable, engaging reading, which is the main reason I always choose to write even the most tense scenes in the past tense. 
          A simple secondary reason is my reader knows (at least subconsciously) nothing in my writing can possibly be happening while she or he is reading it, any more than we can look out and witness what is currently happening in the universe.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Blogging into the void

          For much of my life I've written on sheer speculation.  Doggedly cranking out articles and short stories as a sideline to my regular day jobs and mailing them around the circuit, hoping some would be accepted, and quite a few have been, even by several top magazines.  But it’s always been an inefficient and frustrating and time-consuming process, accumulating vastly more rejections than acceptances. 
          I’m working on a fourth novel in my thriller series, once again only on the thin hope the finished book will attract a flicker of interest from an agent and then win over a publisher with more resources and far wider distribution than the small publisher that bought the first three books in the series could manage.  (I do have a tenuous agent contact gleaned from a Nashville writer’s conference last year. )  People seem to like my fiction and that’s gratifying, but my new book will have to somehow fight its way to the surface of the absolute avalanche of books now available to have any chance of reaching a significant number of readers.
          I began this blog in the hope of stimulating discussions about writing, and perhaps helping a few talented but struggling writers out there, maybe saving them from many learning pains I've gone through for decades.  It’s also a way to pass on a little of the generous help and support I've received from many kind people over the years.  And of course it’s one more way to promote my books.
          But once again I’m working on sheer speculation.  I’m blogging into the great void.
          So.  A simple plea.
          If you’re  enjoying this blog and perhaps gleaning useful tips on writing from it, would you please take a minute or two and let others know about it?